Is ‘Apartheid’ a proper name? Language, Speech and Violence in the Middle East

Recent conversations have led me to question the use of the term “Apartheid” to describe the situation in Israel and the occupied or unoccupied territories. While I fully believe the use of the term to be “accurate” and “truthful”, this does not mean the use of the term is considerate, strategically effective, or right. Nietzsche’s questioning of the priority of the will to truth is relevant here:

Very early in my life I took the question of the relation of art to truth seriously; even now I stand in hoy dread in the face of this discordance. My first book was devoted to it. The Birth of Tragedy believes in art on the background of another belief – that it s not possible to live with truth, that the “will to truth” is already a symptom of degeneration. (Notebooks XIV, 368)

Nietzsche rightly recognized that truth is not the highest value for life – that we can live “in the truth” (especially in the sense of scientific or philosophical truth), and yet fail to flourish. The Bhagavad-Gita makes a complementary claim – that in acetic practice one should use “Words that do not cause disquiet, [words] truthful, kind and pleasing…” (Bhagavad Gita 17-15).

We should not be surprised that “what one should do”, is different from “what is the case” – this distinction is already part of western philosophy as the “is/ought” distinction – first proposed by David Hume in the 1739 Treatise on Human Nature. But, at the same time, the Socratic dictum: “only the examined life is worth living”, seems to establish Truth as the highest value – should we not all lead Socratic lives?  However, if language is subjective, i.e. has meaning only to subject, doesn’t the difference in interpretation between individuals and groups mean sensitivity to the ways others will interpret writing or speech are relevant considerations for any speaker? In the following short piece, I will discuss the implications this line of reasoning on the use of the term “Apartheid” in the context of Israel, with the help of Derrida’s chapter “The Violence of the Letter” from from the work Of Grammatology. (All citations unless indicated otherwise are from Of Grammatology, translation by Gayatri Spivak, John Hopkins University Press: 1997).

What is “Apartheid”? To the ICC, Apartheid is a crime. It is defined as:
inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime (Rome Statute)
The relevant “inhuman acts…referred to in paragraph 1” are (at least):
d. Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
h. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender (Rome Statute)

On this definitional account it would be difficult to deny that various current practices in Israel and the territories constitute Apartheid (which is a “crime against humanity”). However, the meaning of Apartheid is not only decided by a court. It is deeply associated with the political history of South Africa. South African apartheid was influenced by certain European educational models, and perhaps most significantly the Canadian Indian Act and Residential Schools program – but does that make it appropriate to retroactively use “Apartheid” to describe Canada? While Canada and many other states might fit the “definition” of Apartheid, if Apartheid is a proper name it violent to apply it universally. And incorrect – since proper names do not have definitions – they apply strictly to their bearer.

For example, “Tristan Laing” is a proper name, and refers to me not because of its adequacy to certain properties I bear – no other thing could correspond to “Tristan Laing”. If it turned out there were several “Tristan Laings”, then I would simply have been mistaken that my proper name was “Tristan Laing”, my proper name might actually be “Tristan Laing A” or “Tristan Laing 47”. This phenomena is already well known – in elementary school classrooms if there are many girls named “Erin”, their first names are altered to include enough specificity such that their name refers to them and them alone, i.e. some form nicknames, or the last name initial is added (i.e. “Erin W” and “Erin M”). 

Derrida however, just to be difficult, argues that there is no such thing as a proper name. I will try to make sense of this for you. In essence, he claims that writing, inscription, language which is public and enduring, is already the effacement of the proper name: 

…we have proposed [this fact] about the essence or the energy of the graphein [that it is] the originally effacement of the proper name. From the moment that the proper name is erased in a system, there is writing, there is a “subject” from the moment that this obliteration of the proper is produced, that is to say from the first appearing of the proper and from the first dawn of language. This proposition is universal in essence and can be produced a priori. (108)
As soon as a proper name can be written down, it is no longer “proper” to its bearer. The bearer is replaced by a “subject”, an absent-referent, no longer absolutely specific but graspable by anyone. For the subject to be graspable by anyone, it has to participate in the same, not merely concrete particularity. It has to be knowable, and this always means its propriety, its absolute self-belonging and specificity needs to be erased, ignored. This, for Derrida, is the essence of every act of language involving the appearance of a proper name – and for this reason he can say this effacing activity is “a priori”, i.e. prior to any particular experience, prior even to “the dawn of language”. 

But isn’t this only trivially true? Of course nothing absolutely unique can be communicated – but there is difference inside sameness, elsewise sameness would be a hulking mass of undifferentiated nothing. After all, in the essay “Violence and Metaphysics” Derrida claims (against Levinas):
…the other cannot be absolutely exterior to the same without ceasing to be other; and that, consequently, the same is not a totality closed in upon itself, an identity playing with itself, having only the appearence of alterity….How could there be a “play of the same” if alterity itself was not already in the Same…? (Writing and Difference 126-7)
I think that Derrida adamantly believes that difference (or differance?) is already in the play of the same. However, this does not mean that the propriety of the proper name is not effaced by language. It could be that the “root” of the proper name doesn’t exist, and yet the notion of its having a proper root is part of the activity of language:
…if a text always gives itself a certain representation of its own roots, those roots live only by that representation, by never touching the soil, so to speak. Which undoubtedly destroys their radical essence, but not the necessity of their racinating function. (101)
Derrida’s point, therefore, is not that an actual proper root, a unique being, is effaced with the entry of the proper name into language – but rather that this function of proper-naming always has the function of “racinating”, making-roots, even if those roots are illusory. And, that those roots are always made in such a way that the term itself remains cut-off from the roots it projects into the past. This becomes clearly through a further quote:
…the proper name has never been, as the unique appellation reserved for the presence of a unique being, anything but the original myth of a transparent legibility present under the obliteration; it is because the proper name was never possible except through its functioning within a classification and therefore within a system of differences, within a writing retaining the traces of difference, that the interdict was possible, could come into play, and , when the time came, as we shall see, could be transgressed; transgressed, that is to say, restored to the obliteration and the non-self-sameness [non-propriete] at the origin. (109)
Perhaps Derrida’s thought here can be summarized, simplified as such: the proper name is and has always been the myth of itself. It functions by pretending to be what it can’t – an expression of strict propriety 

At this point you are probably thinking that this position is so trivially true that it can be safely ignored. Perhaps of interest to french philosophers, but certainly unimportant to the question of the appropriateness of the term “Apartheid”. However, the link Derrida draws between the the proper name and violence will hopefully change your mind:
To name, to give names that it will on occasion be forbidden to pronounce, such is the originally violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying, in suspending the vocative absolute. To think the unique within the system, to inscribe it there, such is the gesture of the arche-writing: arche-violence, loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of reparatory, protective, instituting the “moral,” prescribing the concealment of writing and the effacement and obliteration of the so-called proper name which was already dividing the proper, a third violence can possible emerge or not (an empirical possibility) within what is commonly called evil, war, indiscretion, rape; which consists of revealing effraction of the so-called proper name, the originally violence which has severed the proper from its property and its self-sameness [propriete]. (112)
Derrida is making two points here. First, the original violence of language is the creation of names whose utterance can be forgiven. Second, that within real political violence (“war, indiscretion, rape…”), the original violence of language can emerge – and this emergence of that original violence in the context of political or social violence constitutes a third form of violence.
An example of the first point is name of the deity in some religions (out of respect, I will not name the un-namable gods here). But to illustrate the second point we need to get our hands dirty – we might have to think about the violence which (might) inhere in terms like “holocaust” (a term of no small importance in relation to the political state of Israel). For instance, we can’t apply the term “holocaust” to other instances of genocide on the basis that it is a proper name – it refers specifically to the genocide of European Jews committed by the Nazi’s (with help from American IT firms and the USSR, and, arguably, the high command of the RAF). That seems fine – except that the Holocaust is such a central event that it becomes a category, and other genocides are categorically “less bad” than the Holocaust. This not only betrays the proper-name structure of the Holocaust (no proper name can be a category, a category is something which could apply to anything), but by becoming a category, and therefore comparable to other categories of wrongful event, other crimes always reveal themselves as less important. So the categorization of “Holocaust” has a double structure of violence – by becoming a category it loses its own propriety, and through this loss of itself’s ownness, it de-privileges other events.
In one sense Derrida’s claim about the original violence of the proper name is trivial, and in another sense it is not. The sense in which it is trivial (although perhaps meaningfully trivial) is expressed here:
If it is true, as I in fact believe, that writing cannot be thought outside of the horizon of intersubjective violence, is there anything, even science, that radically escapes it? Is there a knowledge, and, above all, a language, scientific or not, that one can call alien at once to writing and to violence? If one answers in the negative, as I do, the use of these concepts to discern the specific character of writing is not pertinent. (127)
In short, we have no right to complain that writing is originally violence – because this attribute can not be used to differentiate any particular writing from any other writing – it is merely its a priori structure. This is similar to the charge he makes against Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics” – that the necessities of the other appearing in the light “are violence itself”, and that this violence in relation to the other is “irreducible” and necessary, “since it opens the relation to the other” (Violence and Metaphysics p128-9). Similarly, it’s similar to the claim in “Signature Event Context” that the condition for the possibility of any meaning being communicated at all is that meaning can never fully arrive – that because writing “must continue to “act” and to be readable even when what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written…”(Signature Event Context 8), the meaning of the inscription can never be exhaustively determined by the intention of the author. Writing, because it is repeatable, citeable, re-printable “carries with it a force that breaks with its context” (S.E.C. 9) – is essentially the principle as the proper name never enacts its propriety because its inclusion in a system forces it into the play of the same.
But Derrida’s claims are not trivial because the “third form” of violence is not the same as the first, nor the second, nor does it arise tautologically in every case. The third form is the re-emergence of originary violence in the context of political, social, personal violence. Derrida says little about this third form, other than whether it occurs or not is an empirical issue, i.e. something we can learn by way of experience. We should therfore turn to the real experience of the term Apartheid, and the situations in which the term might apply or not apply, to determine whether the originary violence of the proper name is re-emerging here as an event within political and social violence.
The emphasis on the empirical clears the air – emphasizes that this is essence not a theoretical problem, not a problem for books, but a problem for real subjects. What is the term Apartheid doing now, to real subjects? The term is being used to call for the liberation of the Palestinian people – the call to support BDS against Israeli Apartheid comes from the territories. The call is to use the term not as a proper name but as a piece of descriptive language, a definition. Those who use the term in this way would likely associate their use of the term with the ICC’s, and claim that the current situation is a crime against humanity, and that the two-state solution should give way to people’s rights. However, if the term is being used for its meaning, it should be able to be replaced by any other term which bears the same meaning – the specificity of this term, and the relation to the South African situation, should be of no importance (other than the possibility that it might fall into the same category). In reality, the term ‘Apartheid’ is being used precisely because of its association with South Africa – to refer to our general political opinion of that situation, and to suggest that we should have the same opinion here. This seems justifiable – the “proper name” sense of ‘Apartheid’ is subordinate to the definitional account – certainly we would all decry the use of the term ‘Apartheid’ if no serious definition of ‘Apartheid’ could be truthfully applied to Israel.
However, the problem is – even if the use of the proper name ‘Apartheid’ is justified only on the condition of the truth that the definition of ‘Apartheid’ applies, it remains the case that ‘Apartheid’ is a proper name. As a proper name, it is already broken off from its propriety, its “radical essence”, and this breaking off does nothing to stop its “racinating function”. In other words, because it’s a name in language, it’s already the kind of thing which can apply to anything – but at the same time – it applies to anything as the kind of word which appears to apply to only one thing – even though the originary violence of language is the words inability to actually refer to the one thing it always purports to refer to! The question of the “third form of violence”, however, does not concern the a priori structure of the proper name – but whether that structure re-emerges in its employment to intensify the real social and political violence which is the real context in which the word is employed? There seem to be two significant populations here – the Palestinian people, and the people of South Africa. Of course, at this point my analysis becomes problematically nationalistic, but I see no other way to proceed.
The use of the term ‘Apartheid’ to describe the situation in Israel and the territories could offend people in South Africa. The only people who could reasonably be said to have a right to object to the use of a term which offends them for this reason are those who either  participated in the struggle against South African Apartheid, or were oppressed by it, or both. The use of this term in such a way that it is explicitly broken away from its roots – a breaking which has always already happened, but which can become explicit in the 3rd form of violence – makes their struggle look like just an instance of the category of “anti-apartheid struggles”. Whether any South Africans are actually offended by this is an empirical question – we can’t merely theorize about it, we need to actually learn about real people’s feelings. There has certainly been support for the use of the expression ‘Apartheid’ in the Israeli situation from prominent South African leaders involved in the struggle against South African Apartheid.
Furthermore, the use of the term ‘Apartheid’ could offend Palestinians. And for exactly the same reasons – picking someone else’s proper name for your struggle de-specifies it, makes it look like just another one in a series of instances of “anti-apartheid struggles”. Whether anyone in Palestine is actually offended by this is an empirical question.
However, the kicker is this: even if this 3rd form of violence exists, and the use of the term ‘Apartheid’ is violent – this doesn’t automatically mean we have to stop using it. We live in a world where violence is originary – the point is not to be non-violent, but to negotiate the economy of violence  in the most just way we can learn how to. There is no reason, if one has a choice between preventing an instance of the 2nd form of violence (i.e. rape, war, or inconsiderateness) or an instance of the 3rd form (the re-emergence of originary violence in a particular instance of the 2nd form), one should always act against the 3rd form. This is essentially an economic issue. Not to say the moral is always the “least violent”, although perhaps many Derrideans would want to take this analysis in that direction (I certainly did when I was younger). The right action, in some cases, might not minimize violence – it is not clear what it means for an action to be the “right” action, or what morality is at all. Derrida’s analysis does not rely on a particular theory of the good life, of ethics, or of law – rather – it situations itself a the origin of any possible morality. And for this reason, it can not tell us in advance whether or not the use of the term Apartheid is acceptable. One thing seems incredibly likely, however: that simply by virtue of being a member of the state of Israel, or associating your identity somehow with this state – this is not enough to have a right to personally be offended by the use of the term Apartheid to describe Israel. And, if one wants to speak for others, one must speak with others – and furthermore – not privilege the violence done against one group of others as categorically worse than the violence done against the Palestinians. If there is one thing to take from Derrida’s analysis it is this: the mere fact that an action is immoral could never make that action wrong:
To recognize writing in speech, that is to say difference and the absence of speech, is to begin to think the lure. There is no ethics without the presence of the other but also, and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, difference, writing. The arche-writing is the origin of morality as of immorality. The nonethical opening of ethics. A violent opening. (139-140)

4 thoughts on “Is ‘Apartheid’ a proper name? Language, Speech and Violence in the Middle East

  1. The real importance of recognizing the apartheid like character of the Israeli state and its siege of the west bank is explained concisely by Chomsky in this short talk

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